Weekly Feature



2018-08-15 / Front Page

Collins suspends campaign as McMurray sees opening

by ETHAN POWERS
Editor


Nate McMurray Nate McMurray In the early morning hours on Aug. 8, Nate McMurray put on his headphones and began playing an audiobook as he prepared to leave his house for an early jog.

He didn’t get far before the narrator’s words became nearly inaudible due to the incessant buzzing and notification sounds that began engulfing his phone.

“When I go jogging, I always keep my phone with me because I love listening to audiobooks. It just started going crazy. I thought it was broken,” McMurray said.

But the 43-year-old town supervisor of Grand Island and a long shot Democratic candidate in the congressional race for New York’s 27th District, wasn’t experiencing an electronic malfunction. Friends, campaign staffers and national media outlets were bombarding him with the news that Chris Collins, the GOP incumbent in the race, had just been arrested on charges of insider trading.

For McMurray, the next sleepless 24 hours were a whirlwind of interviews, ad-hoc press conferences and campaign appearances

“Even the Republican leadership is moving away from him now, but I just want to say to these people, ‘This is not news,’” McMurray said of Collins’ affiliation with Innate Immunotherapeutics, the Australian biotech company that the congressman invested in. “It was all in the public record for over a year. How did he get endorsed?”

While McMurray seized the opportunity to question his opponent’s integrity through the headlines of national media, Collins organized a brief press conference of his own last week at the Embassy Suites in Buffalo regarding the charges filed against him.

Collins discussed his background as a businessman and entrepreneur, investing in and helping to stabilize dozens of bankrupt and financially distressed companies, before arriving at the topic of Innate.

“Over this time my affiliation with Innate Immunotherapeutics has prompted attacks on me, my integrity and my investments,” he said. “I believe I acted properly and within the law at all times with regard to my affiliation with Innate. Throughout my tenure in Congress, I have followed all rules and all ethical guidelines when it comes to my personal investments, including those with Innate.”

The indictment against Collins, unsealed last week by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, alleges that Collins sought to use insider information to help family and friends to avoid financial loss when Innate Immunotherapeutics failed a key clinical drug test.

“When it became clear that the drug I and others believed in fell short of our hopes and expectations, I held on to my shares rather than sell them,” Collins said. “As a result, the significant investment I made in the company, worth millions of dollars, was wiped out. That’s OK; that’s the risk I took.”

Three days after the press conference, Collins announced the suspension of his re-election bid.

“After extensive discussions with my family and my friends over the last few days, I have decided that it is in the best interests of the constituents of NY-27, the Republican Party and President Trump’s agenda for me to suspend my campaign for re-election to Congress,” Collins wrote in a statement.

Getting off the ballot

Even with the announcement of a campaign suspension, Collins and the Erie County GOP face an uphill climb to remove his name from the ballot.

“Being arrested doesn’t disqualify you from being on a ballot,” said John Conklin, director of public information for the New York State Board of Elections.

According to Conklin, there are three ways in which a candidate can get off the congressional ballot line once they’re on, the first of which is death. The second involves disqualification if a candidate doesn’t meet the basic qualification for U.S. office — being 25 years old, a U.S. citizen and a resident of the state in which the candidate is running at the time of the election.

However, a third option lies in a process called “declination.”

“When you hand in your petition, there’s a period shortly after that where you decide to decline the nomination,” said Conklin. “Sometimes people get nominated without their knowledge.”

Candidates can apply for declination only during designated periods, usually when he or she files ballot access documents. All such periods have closed and passed, but there is a provision within the election law that allows for a new declination period to open. That can occur if the candidate in question were to be nominated for a second office.

“That gives the opportunity to decline the first office and accept the nomination for the second office,” said Conklin. “So, if they [Erie County GOP] found a second office out there somewhere that they could nominate him to, and he [Collins] would have to consent to this, then he could accept that second nomination and decline the first.”

In other words, while election law states that a candidate cannot be nominated for two separate offices on the same ballot, the Erie County GOP could nominate Collins for a less prominent seat within the county, thereby allowing him to bow out of the race for the House and for the party to replace him with a new candidate.

The declination tactic is being discussed across party lines for both the governor and attorney general races.

Former actress and political newcomer Cynthia Nixon has made waves in her bid to pull off an enormous Democratic primary upset of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Nixon surprisingly received an endorsement from the Working Families Party in April, though the party has admitted that if she is unsuccessful in the Democratic primary it will seek to move her off the Working Families gubernatorial ballot line and onto its line in the state Assembly race in Nixon’s home district in Manhattan.

The rationale is that by “declining” the Working Families Party nomination for governor and seeking another office, Nixon would avoid playing a spoiler role in November’s general election in potentially giving an edge to Republican gubernatorial nominee Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive.

Elsewhere within the New York State Democratic Committee, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of the 18th Congressional District in Hudson Valley announced his candidacy for the state’s attorney general race in addition to a re-election bid for his House seat. Maloney has stated that if he wins the four-way Democratic primary for attorney general, he’ll decline the nomination for Congress.

A group associated with the campaign of Maloney’s Republican congressional opponent James O’Donnell, a retired police commander and current Orange County legislator, attempted to challenge the legality of Maloney’s re-election bid. However, Justice Denise Hartman of the Albany County Supreme Court recently dismissed the argument, deciding that there is no need for Maloney to abandon one of the campaigns given that he is not yet the nominee for both offices.

McMurray ready for opportunity

McMurray has openly wondered where the outrage was prior to this week from both media and the constituency in relation to Collins’ ties to Innate while in office.

“I thought he would drop out before this,” McMurray said. “I thought the pressure would build, and when no pressure was building, I wondered, ‘Is the system broken? Are people not watching who this guy is?’ There have been so many people that have just ignored that it existed. The same people that are hand-wringing right now were taking selfies with him two weeks ago.”

Following the news of the indictment, McMurray says that thousands of dollars in donations and contributions flew into his campaign coffers. According to data from the Federal Elections Commission, McMurray’s total contributions consist of $132,000.

McMurray knows it will take much more than that if he is to compete in a district that gave President Trump nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2016. The heavily Republican district was fortified even further as a GOP stronghold when the New York State Legislature redrew the congressional districts in 2012. In the 2016 congressional election, Collins enjoyed a 34 percent margin of victory over Democratic challenger Diana Kastenbaum.

But as of now, McMurray is riding an inexorable wave of energy from Wednesday’s events that he says has been a “huge shot in the arm” for his campaign, and while he says the momentum has shifted, the strategy and the message won’t change.

“I’ve always been who I am. I’ve never been some kind of policy expert. I’ve always tried to run an honest campaign,” he said. “I don’t take my positions from the party or anybody else. I take them from my heart.”

Prior to last week’s morning jog, McMurray was little more than an underdog story that few believed had a Hollywood finish in its narrative. By the time he returned home, McMurray says he was ready to show that his bite is as strong as his bark.

“We’re getting resources, we’re getting money and we’re getting support that we’ve never had before. The system is suddenly starting to believe in us.”

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